About 1130 words; 6 minutes to read.
Audio summary by volunteer Bella Kiss.
Rube Goldberg Forever
“Completing Operational Unit.” Beneath those words sat an empty space: a box for someone to fill in. Corrections Canada has one million and one of them in its inventory. Like nature’s allergy to a vacuum, CSC abhors an empty document field. This one occupied the upper left corner of an “Offender Application for Authorization to Access a Telephone Number.” The form’s title alone could carry the curriculum for a semester in criminology.
If I were teaching that class, I think I’d break the ice by assigning a 2500-word paper on the significance of the word offender (vi offend; current – offending, past – offended). Alternatively, I might be swayed to accept 2,345 words on how the noun’s placement at the top of this phone number application fits with the responsibility of Canada’s criminal courts to sentence lawbreakers in a way that “denounces unlawful conduct and the harm done to victims or to the community that is caused by unlawful conduct.” (CC s. 718 (a)) The baffled look on the students’ faces alone would justify the exercise.
As a life-sentenced prisoner who guards his ground in the family will by regularly warming the receiver of the CSC inmate telephone system, I’ve been filling out phone number application forms for at least 25 years. It’s a requirement every time I want to add or delete a phone number to my ‘maximum-40-number’ allowable list. Why forty? Simple. For the same reason churchmen running Venice in the 16th century settled on the 40-day quarantine of sailors entering city limits during the plague: God said so. Noah’s flood was a 40 day-er, Moses went to the mountain for 40 days and came home with the world’s first split-screen tablet, and Jesus sparred successfully with El diablo after a fast 40 in the desert. If it’s good enough for the son of God, then it’s good enough for Canadian convicts (check CSC’s Mission Statement – it’s in there somewhere).
The “Offender Application for Authorization…” form contains vacant boxes that would be familiar even to a person who has never spent a night in the clink. Name. Date of Birth. Current institution. PIN number. But what in the name of George Orwell is a “Completing Operational Unit?” Do I write “human” there? Or would that be too presumptuous? Maybe just stick with offender. The truth is that I’ve never known. For the past quarter century, I’ve just continued to live in the shadow of unforgiveable sin, and left the box blank. But as the Good Book says, eventually you reapeth what you soweth. Today was judgment day.
“It’s your bloody cell number,” my work supervisor at the visits department spat with observable disgust. “And I’m not the one who marked that f___in’ box with a blue highlighter and sent the f___n’ form back to you in the mail. F___k!”
I like my work supervisor. Some days she gives me the day off with pay – which is particularly welcome during the playoffs of a certain sport played on grass with wooden sticks and oversized cowhide gloves during daylight hours. But she’s not one to easily suffer insensibility. It begs the question of how she ended up here with a sentence of 25-to-pension.
“I told them. I said, ‘you have to look up his cell number on the computer to send it back to him anyways. So why not just look it up, and write it in the box?’ But no. Obviously there’s a point to be made. So they look up your number, write it in felt pen on the back of the form, color in the empty box with that stupid blue highlighter – without even telling you what you’re supposed to put in the f___n’ box – and send it back to you in the mail.”
At this, my boss takes a free-diver’s breath and looks to her left, as if some invisible audience there might call out the answer to why she continues enduring this obvious cerebral torment on a daily basis, and what she possibly could have ever done that was so evil as to merit it.
“So…,” she concedes to continue, “who do you think has to take the form back to the living-unit control post officer, who then has to write out a mail pick-up notice to post in his window so that you can get the form back and see that it has a blue highlight in a box that NO ONE HAS A F___KIN’ CLUE is the spot for their cell number, so that you can put it back in the inmate mail box for ME to pick up again tomorrow morning and haul right back to this office to be put in the exact same f___in’ pile it was in YESTERDAY, so that the phone number you requested can be typed into the computer a MONTH after you requested it? Right?”
I make a mental note to ensure that the staff washroom in visits is stocked with extra-plush toilet tissue. In this place, public safety is everyone’s duty.
During a recent re-visit to British writer Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I was colourfully reminded of the commonwealth’s historical preference for public strangulation, skewering, disembowelment, immolation and dismemberment as a response to the felonious conduct of the citizenry. This is our heritage – a past against which even a life sentence of assiduous Big House red tape must be measured as an improvement. When asked to contribute a thought this week, on the 30th anniversary of Canada’s lighthouse federal prison law, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, this was the contrast that came to mind. As a code, the CCRA has permitted me – a man convicted of murder – to sit in a costly classroom of rehabilitation on full scholarship while retaining all the human rights of a Canadian citizen. Try finding that one in the court of Henry VIII.
For many though, one of the greatest values the CCRA defends is Canada’s reputation as an enlightened nation that treasures human dignity. Under this law, even those who breach the social contract most egregiously are punished by nothing in excess of humane incarceration beneath the measured authority of a trained federal public service. So if some of those armed counter clerks resemble characters in a Seinfeld episode, what of it? I for one am eternally grateful that such is Canada’s maximum penalty for my reprehensible wrongdoing three decades ago. Still, the Parole Board and I do have a date later this year to discuss my possible future on the sunny side of the razor wire. If one of those panel members just happens to be a cranky 30-something trivia-addict attending in a hermetically-sealed sterile bubble, I sure hope that the surname of the other one isn’t Newman.